Employment Law Daily Autozone promptly responded to harassment by store manager—who wasn’t a 'Vance' supervisor
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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Autozone promptly responded to harassment by store manager—who wasn’t a 'Vance' supervisor

By Lisa Milam-Perez, J.D. Rejecting the EEOC’s contention that Autozone failed to take prompt remedial action when a store manager allegedly sexually harassed three employees, a federal court in Tennessee granted summary judgment in the retailer’s favor on the Commission’s Title VII hostile work environment claims. The employer’s regional HR manager promptly responded upon getting word of an employee complaint, and the offending manager was transferred, then discharged, soon after. And, despite his job title, the store manager wasn’t a "supervisor" under the Supreme Court’s Vance v. Ball State University test, the court said, so the company could not be liable for his conduct (EEOC v. Autozone, Inc., July 13, 2016, Mays, S., Jr.). Complaints and response. The EEOC alleged that the store manager engaged in "lewd and obscene" behavior, making sexual comments and advances toward three female employees. It was disputed, though, at what point the first complainant brought the manager’s behavior to the attention of higher-ups. The EEOC asserted that the employee raised her concerns to an Autozone district manager sometime between October 14 and October 24, 2012; after that, the district manager conferred with one of the other complainants to inquire whether the manager had also made inappropriate comments to her. (He had.) Then, around the first week in November, the district manager informed the regional HR manager of the allegations. The HR manager followed up with the initial complainant on November 5 by phone, during which the employee apparently voiced her displeasure about shift scheduling, but nothing more. Shortly after their phone call, though, she faxed a detailed letter to the HR manager, citing the scheduling issues once again, but also asserting a complaint of sexual harassment. The HR manager met with the employee in person the next day, to investigate and to seek a written statement. The HR manager also followed up with the other two (eventual) complainants, thus obtaining statements from all three employees. About a week later, the HR manager told the employee that the store manager was to be transferred to another store within a few days, and asked the employee whether she felt she could work with him for a short while longer. The employee assured the HR manager that she could. In the interim, the store manager had stayed away from the employee ever since the investigation was launched. He was transferred to the other store, and then fired a few weeks later. No employer liability. Considering the necessary elements of a hostile work environment claim, the court held a reasonable jury could not find in the EEOC’s favor as to employer liability, and dismissed the EEOC’s claims based on this factor alone. While the manager had the ability to hire hourly workers at the store, he lacked authority to fire, demote, promote, or transfer them, the court observed. He could offer input into promotion decisions, too, but Autozone’s district manager did not have to take his opinions into account. And, notwithstanding his job title, the harasser could do nothing more than direct the labor of his "coworkers," he was without power to effect a significant change in their employment status. Consequently, he was not a "supervisor" for purposes of establishing employer liability for his conduct under Title VII. Moreover, the EEOC could not show that Autozone knew (or should have known) of the harasser’s misconduct and failed to take appropriate corrective action. It was undisputed that as soon as Autozone knew or had reason to know that harassment was taking place, it began to take all of the usual steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment—even assuming that the timeline set forth by the EEOC was correct. The EEOC asserted that the harassment began in August 2012; however, the complainant waited until October to report the misconduct, "despite multiple avenues for reporting, including a dedicated toll-free number to AutoZone’s corporate relations department," the court pointed out. And once the employee did complain, her initial statement to the district manager triggered an "active investigation" that ended in the manager’s transfer and subsequent termination within weeks. Also, it was undisputed that hers was the first complaint that Autozone had received about this particular manager. Therefore, summary judgment in Autozone’s favor was proper.

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